An Obscure, Outrageous Reason Your Property Taxes Are So High

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September 2, 2016

In many parts of the country, they supply our water, fight our fires and help us get to work, but “special districts” are a form of government that receives very little attention. The lack of media scrutiny and public interest in special districts provides opportunities for insiders to feast on the billions of tax dollars these entities collect each year. One such group of insiders are the intermediaries who help districts issue their bonds.

The Census Bureau counted over 38,000 special districts in its 2012 enumeration of local governments (the next count will be in 2017). The Census also found that these districts had aggregate revenue of $206 billion and debt of $370 billion, representing about 10 percent of the municipal bond market.

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In an amusing and informative piece in March, HBO’s John Oliver showed viewers the ups and downs of these special districts. One inspiring scene in Oliver’s report shows two officials of a New Hampshire mosquito control district conducting a fully by-the-book public meeting with precisely zero members of the public attending.

Less inspiring was the case of a Texas special district formed when a company wheeled a mobile home onto a vacant plot of land and then rented it to a married couple for $150 per month short term. Those two individuals held the entire voting power of the special district – a power they used to authorize $500 million in new bonds to be issued by the district. Those bonds will finance water, sewer and other infrastructure for a new subdivision to be built on the vacant land.

But an electorate of two short-timers lacks the ability and incentive to ensure that the new bonds are issued in a cost-efficient manner. And it appears that underwriters, lawyers, financial advisors and other service providers are raking in outsized shares of these new bond proceeds.

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On Aug. 20, James Drew of the Houston Chronicle reported on two special districts in Fort Bend County that paid issuance costs of between 9 percent and 11 percent of the face value of the bonds issued (Drew also reported that one of the special districts, MUD 187, was formed when a Houston developer arranged for two people to move their trailer onto what was then an empty field).

The issuance costs paid by these two special districts is well above the national average of 1.02 percent that I calculated in a 2015 study published by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Issuance costs are to local governments like points are to a consumer taking out a home mortgage. In both cases, the goal should normally be to minimize them.

Subsequently I looked at several bonds issued by special districts in the Dallas suburbs for the Texas Public Policy Institute. Costs of issuance ranged from 11 percent to 15 percent of the face value of the securities. In a number of the Texas cases (both those near Houston and those around Dallas) underwriting fees alone accounted for 3 percent of face value – compared to a national average of about 0.5 percent reported by Bloomberg.

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Late last year, the California State Treasurer’s Office released a comprehensive database of bonds issued in the Golden State with cost of issuance details. While my study provides data for a nationwide sample of bonds, the California State Treasurer’s Office has now posted issuance cost details for all municipal bonds issued statewide. This impressive data set can be found here. The data were collected by the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission (CDIAC), a unit of the State Treasurer’s Office. Under state law, California local governments must report their debt data to CDIAC. The commission had been publishing some of this data, but Treasurer John Chiang, an advocate for transparency, recently decided to publish everything, including details on issuance costs.

A review of the California data shows numerous issuance cost ratios in excess of 10 percent of the issued amount – and even some exceeding 20 percent. Many of the higher issuance cost levels were associated with small bond issues from special districts. Since some of the issuance costs don’t vary with issuance size, they can hit small issuers relatively hard.

In 2013, San Jacinto special districts (called Community Facilities Districts) issued two special tax bonds totaling $985,000 and $925,000 respectively. In each case, costs of issuance exceeded 20 percent.

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According to the Official Statement for the $925,000 bond, the district received a mere $532,066 of the bond proceeds. The Estimated Sources and Uses of Funds on page 6 of the document show $90,428 being deposited into a reserve fund and a total of $295,890 going to the underwriter, attorneys and other service providers. The remaining $6,616 reflected an original issue discount, arising from the bonds being sold below face value.

The debt service schedule on page 10 of the Official Statement shows that the district will pay $1,240,252 in interest on the $925,000 of bonds through 2043. Total debt service of $2,165,252 over the life of the bond issue is four times the net proceeds received by the district.

Whether high-cost bonds are issued in Texas, California or another state, the victims are homeowners living in or moving into the special district; their property taxes must be increased to service the bonds. Higher tax rates must be levied over the life of these securities – often as long as 30 years – and can lead to depressed property values.

While special district voters may be unable or uninterested in protecting themselves from excessive bond fees, other levels of government can. More states can follow California’s lead by making issuance cost data public and readily accessible, facilitating the type of research I have reported here (Texas has a similar resource here).

Also, regulators can take action against unscrupulous bond market providers. Earlier this year, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) fined a securities firm for charging a 4.3 percent underwriting fee to a Colorado school district, concluding that the fee “was inappropriate given the underwriting work performed.” Hopefully FINRA will turn its attention to special districts, thereby protecting the property taxpayers of tomorrow.

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